At the conclusion of the 2007 baseball season, the Cleveland Indians were once again close, but could not win it all.
Game seven of the 2007 American League Championship Series ended in a 11-2 rout at the hands of the Boston Red Sox. Judging by the score, an outsider would wonder how the hell the Indians were even playing this game in the first place.
The Indians were one of the elite teams in baseball last year, but after a perplexing, heartbreaking, and embarrassing collapse after going up 3-1 in the series versus Boston, the Indians had little to show for their well assembled roster and efficient season.
The 2008 Cleveland Indians are looking forward to this current season, but the road back to the postseason will be a difficult one. Here are five issues that may decide whether the Indians can return to the top of the league and try and end one of the longest championship droughts in the game of baseball.
1. The Return of Travis Hafner
It sounds like I imply he was hurt last year, but the man known as Pronk was essentially a totally different player last year.
If the Indians plan on succeeding this season, they need the old version of Hafner back in 2008. They need the version who, along with David Ortiz, was one of the most productive hitters in the American League from 2004-2006.
Hafner struggled most of last season, especially in the playoffs where he had just four hits and struck out 12 times in the ALCS.
He did however get off to a terrific start in April, with a .338 average and an OBP approaching .500.
I remember watching him hit a home run that month in Tampa that went over the stands and hit the back of the dome. He was hitting lasers until he got in a funk in May and never came close to recovering. Nearly every statistical category was down for him in 2007; the most frightening number was his home run total dropped from 42 in 2006 to just 24 in 2007.
But it’s a new season. If Hafner can bounce back, it would be the equivalent of signing a big time free agent to bolster the lineup. The Indians need him to step up and mash the ball like he has in his season prior to 2007 in order to keep pace with...
2. The Detroit Tigers: Head to head battle
The Detroit Tigers made the biggest move of the offseason when they traded for Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis.
I live in Florida and saw Cabrera play a lot for the Marlins. He is a pure hitter, plain and simple, and he will be one of the all time greats if he stays healthy for the rest of his career.
Willis is a bit of an enigma. He has a quirky delivery which creates a lot of potential for things to go wrong every time he takes the mound. But he’s had success in the past and isn’t going to have to be the ace of this staff thanks to Justin Verlander.
The Tigers' lineup is stacked. It reminds me of the late '90s Indians lineups, where guys like Jim Thome and Manny Ramirez had to eventually work their way into the heart of the order.
Curtis Granderson, Magglio Ordonez, Gary Sheffield, Carlos Guillen, and Ivan Rodriguez are all back, along with the acquisitions of the aformentioned Cabrera and Edgar Renteria, the Tigers are going to be hard to pitch to. They will average over six runs a game, and while their pitching staff is not outstanding, they are going to win 90+ games easily.
The Indians have the edge in pitching, but these games between Cleveland and Detroit will be huge in deciding who will go play in October and who may not. At least one team out of the Indians, Tigers, Yankees, and Red Sox will not make the playoffs. If the Indians can’t keep up with the Tiger’s offense, it could be them.
3. C.C.’s Contract Year
This has been the most talked about topic of the offseason for the Indians: Will they resign C.C. Sabathia after this year?
I would bet on “no” if I had to, but I’m not ruling it out completely. A big-time season and deep run through the playoffs could convince the normally cost-conscious Indians to open up the wallet and sign the best pitcher to come out of their system in a long time.
I’m not sure if the whole “Contract Year” issue with players actually does anything. I hope C.C. is thinking about getting the ball over the plate instead of free agency while he’s pitching in the sixth inning against the Yankees.
I’m a bit torn on the issue of resigning him. I have been a fan of his since he entered the league with the Indians, but I have my concerns.
As always, his weight is a big question. How long can a pitcher pushing three bills last?
Well Bartolo Colon didn’t exactly have the longevity that I envisioned as I shrewdly blasted Mark Shapiro for trading him for some chump named Sizemore.
C.C. might not be worth the money in the back half of a long term contract, and the Indians can’t afford to spend money on players who don’t perform. Also, there’s plenty of examples of big money pitching contracts never panning out, such as Mike Hampton, Chan Ho Park, and Carl Pavano to name a few.
Is it better to remain flexible and not lock up players who may not give you your money’s worth down the road? I think yes, so I’m going to just wait and see what happens to C.C. You will undoubtedly hear about this all year as it will be discussed ad nauseam every time he pitches.
4. The Bullpen’s Repeat Performance
The Indians had a great bullpen last year. The season before they were terrible. If the Indians can close out games, with or without the help of the frequently shaky Joe Borowski, they will post a similar record to last season.
Guys like Jensen Lewis and Rafael Perez will be scouted more by opposing teams and may not be as successful as they were late last season. Masa Kobayashi sounds like a hibachi restaurant, but he was the Indians biggest offseason signing and could be a new wrinkle to an already solid bullpen.
5. Corner Outfield Production? Please?
I’ll be honest, the Indians have a terrible situation in the corners of the outfield.
Left field is occupied by the righty-lefty combination of Jason Michaels and David Dellucci. The Indians assembled these two as a sort of, rub-two-sticks-together-and-hope-it-makes-a-fire kind of plan. Neither guy hits for a great average, or good power, or plays stellar defense, or steals bases.
They are as ordinary as it gets at a position that can be filled with much more productivity. This could be a trade deadline target for the Indians, as neither player is really going to make any noise and justify holding down the spot.
Franklin Gutierrez plays right field and has some potential. He hit .330 against lefties last season, something the Indians loved in his first significant amount of time in the big leagues.
Unfortunately, he had twice as many at-bats against righties and only hit .232. He is now the starter from Opening Day onward and will need to hit breaking balls better in order to be a more consistent hitter. His defense is solid, as he was originally a center fielder, but Grady Sizemore has that position on lock-down.
If the Indians are still in it around the trade deadline, it wouldn’t surprise me if they tried to bolster the corner outfield positions to try and get more offensive production.